What connects James Bond and Shakespeare? The answer: John Dee, magician, spy, theatre director, and inventor of the British Empire. Take a journey through his bizarre and extraordinary life, and hear him speak in his own words, alongside the poetry from Shakespeare and Marlowe.
Portrait of John Dee c. 1594 – View the painting
If you want to take a closer look at the painting mentioned in this episode, you can view it at the link above. Visit the podcast page on the Ashmolean website: ashmolean.org/objects-out-loud
Hosted by Lucie Dawkins, with the voices of Jonathan Aris and Hannah Bristow.
The producer is Lucie Dawkins.
About Objects Out Loud: From a magician who inspired Shakespeare, and poems woven into Japanese prints, to manuscripts illuminated with the ancient love story of Layla and Majnun, this new podcast series will delve into the poetry and literature hidden in the collections at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
Lucie: Let’s imagine that we are in the audience of a student play, performed in the great hall of Trinity College, Cambridge. It’s a very funny Ancient Greek comedy by Aristophanes called Peace with lots of rude jokes and exciting plot twists, and involves absurd props, including a large wooden beetle. The audience is in hysterics, when one of the actors gets onto the beetle, and suddenly soars upwards into thin air. Everyone falls into shocked silence.
The young academic who directed the play is sitting quietly to one side, watching it all unfold with unnervingly intelligent eyes. His name is John Dee, he's 20 years old, and the year is 1547. People are already beginning to call him a sorcerer. His are the eyes looking out of the portrait in today’s episode
This is Objects Out Loud, a podcast about the poetry and stories hidden in the galleries of the Ashmolean Museum. Today, we are going to meet the magician who inspired Shakespeare.
The levitating beetle was the first of many events that set rumours flying around John Dee’s uncanny abilities. His career was enough to fill several lifetimes - as well as a theatrical genius, he was a priest, a mathematician, an astronomer, a librarian, a naval expert, a spy, an alchemist, a government advisor, a magician who communicated with angels, and the man who invented the British Empire.
But, at the time of his production of Peace, Dee was barely out of his teens. He soon found that Cambridge University didn’t satisfy his hunger for what he called an inter-traffic of the mind. But across the channel, Europe was a hotbed of change. The Renaissance had brought an explosion of ideas into the universities, including new fields in mathematics and science - and there was one subject that Dee was particularly fascinated by: cartography, or the the making of maps.
Today, we are used to being able to pinpoint our exact location on the surface of the earth with a few taps on our phone, but in the late 16th century, maps were a prototype technology trying to capture a world in flux. Just five years before John Dee was born, Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the world, proving for the first time that it was a globe rather than a flat disk. In Dee’s lifetime, European countries were encountering whole new continents in the Atlantic and Pacific. And it wasn’t only the limits of the world which were shifting around John Dee - it was the universe too. When Dee was only a child, the mathematician Copernicus suggested that the earth is not at the centre of the universe, but rather that planets revolve around the sun. His idea was considered so alarming and heretical that the Pope eventually banned his writing.
Just imagine what that experience must have been like for an everyday person in Britain at this time, where in the course of a single lifetime the solid ground beneath their feet turned into a rapidly expanding mystery. It was simultaneously terrifying and thrilling, and gripped the imaginations of every part of society. An edgy theatre company on the south bank of London even called their new theatre ‘The Globe’, as a home for the plays of their resident writer, William Shakespeare.
Mapping the earth was a tricky business. Scholars had to match up accounts of explorers with complex measurements of the stars and some mind-bending maths. It was a job for the top brains of the time, and John Dee set out across Europe to track down expert map-makers and become one himself. He was in search of nothing less than the best knowledge that man might attain unto in the world.
These maps were not just part of an academic exercise. They were also a source of huge power. European countries were vying with each other to gain control of trade routes and new lands, in pursuit of astounding wealth to be taken from places like the spice islands in Indonesia and the gold mines of the Americas. It was the birth of European colonialism, and it was a vicious international competition. For a country to dominate a lucrative trade route, it first needed the most accurate maps.
By the time Dee returned home a few years later, he had turned himself into one of the leading experts in maps and astronomy in Britain. As a man on the make in a new world, he also had an innovative career path in mind. He rejected an academic post from Oxford University, and instead set his sights on becoming a specialist government consultant. Essentially, he invented the think tank.
However, it was not going to be an easy journey. He was the son of a gentleman tailor from London, and didn’t have the aristocratic status that would give him smooth access to the royal court. As he worked his way up, he had several side hustles in order to survive, which is one of the reasons for his packed CV, making money as a private tutor to the children of lords, and a part-time priest.
His other problem was that he was still plagued by rumours that he was dabbling in the occult. He was worried about many vain reports spread abroad which could damage his reputation with royalty. And with good reason. Maps and maths were not the only things that Dee had been studying in Europe. He had already begun his own research into how to communicate with spirits and angels.
Today, science and the occult might seem incompatible, but Dee was living at a time where things were not so clear cut. To Dee, the spiritual realm was another untouched horizon ripe for research, just like mapping a new country. In fact, he called his magical studies an other (as it were) optical science, and believed that the key to communicating with spirits lay in mathematics and physics.
However, under the Catholic Queen Mary I, these magical pursuits smacked of collaboration with the devil. Dee was arrested for witchcraft after drawing up the Queen’s horoscope, and only narrowly escaped with his life. Luckily for Dee, Mary’s protestant sister Elizabeth I soon came to the throne, and she shared the same fascination for probing the boundaries of human knowledge.
Under Elizabeth I, John Dee’s star was in the ascendant. He soon became a personal favourite of the queen, who affectionately called him my philosopher. He advised on her on everything, from using horoscopes to choose the date of her coronation to advising on medical matters, and even possible choices of husband. His knowledge of maps made him an expert in navigation at sea, and it his advice on naval tactics that helped to beat Spanish Armada.
During this time, John Dee also created a policy paper called General and Rare Memorials Pertayning to the Perfect Art of Navigation, in which he set out a plan for naval supremacy over other nations, and spreading British colonies overseas. In it, he invented the term ‘British Empire’. While he may not have been the first person to voice the idea, he was the first one to formulate it as a government policy, one that would prompt violence and imperialism for centuries to come.
Meanwhile, Dee’s work for the royal court began to take on a twist. He continued to travel to and from Europe on various research trips, and on his travels he kept up a correspondence with Elizabeth’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham. These letters contain secretive references to dangerous information, like I am forced to be brief. That which England suspected is also here, which suggest that Dee was acting as a spy. He signed off secret letters to the queen with his personal cipher, 007 - which may have been where Ian Fleming got his inspiration for James Bond’s codename.
When he was back in his home in Mortlake, near London, Dee was developing his own passion project: the creation of a national library. He collected over 4,000 books, the largest library in the country, with an open reading room for any visiting scholar to use. At the heart of this library was his private oratory, and inside this oratory, his studies of the occult continued.
Dee wrote a diary about regular communications with spirits, which he believed were support sent from God to help him in his studies. However, he found needed the help of a skryer, a medium who used a crystal ball or magic mirror to communicate with the spirits and relate their messages back to Dee. He became dependent on a skryer called Edward Kelley. Kelley, it seems, was not a trustworthy character. He wore a cap tight over his head to hide his ears which had mostly likely been cut off as a punishment for forgery. The crystals and mirrors they used now sit in the British Museum. This is Dee’s diary entry, recording one of his sessions with Kelley.
Suddenly, there seemed to come out of my Oratory a Spiritual creature, like a pretty girl of 7 or 9 years of age, attired on her head with her hair rolled up before, and hanging down very long behind, with a gown of Sey, changeable green and red, and with a train she seemed to play up and down, and seemed to go in and out behind my books, lying on heaps, the biggest....and as she should ever go between them, the books seemed to give place sufficiently, one heap from the other, while she passed between them: And so I considered, and, the diverse reports which E. K. made unto me of this pretty maiden.
Unsurprisingly, this enigmatic magician and librarian with the queen’s ear caught the imagination of the public. A trend appeared on London stages for plays featuring scholarly sorcerers who have a fixation with books. One such play was Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, and it’s likely that John Dee was one of his inspirations. It features a scholar called Faustus, who summons Lucifer. In return for a devil as his assistant and magical powers, Faustus signs over his soul to hell - exactly the sort of pact that Mary I suspected John Dee had made. In this speech from the start of the play, Faustus decides to reject God, and use his mathematics and his books to seek the power of magic.
These metaphysics of magicians,
And necromantic books are heavenly;
Lines, circles, scenes, letters, and characters;
Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires.
O, what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honour, of omnipotence,
Is promis'd to the studious artizan!
All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command: emperors and kings
Are but obeyed in their several provinces,
Nor can they raise the wind, or rend the clouds;
But his dominion that exceeds in this,
Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man;
A sound magician is a mighty god:
Here, Faustus, tire thy brains to gain a deity.
John Dee also seems to make an appearance in the work of another writer, who we met earlier. William Shakespeare, in his play The Tempest, created the magician Prospero, with his spirit servant Ariel. Dee’s most frequent angelic visitor is called Uriel in his diaries. In this speech at the end of the play, Prospero tells the spirits around him that he is leaving his life of magic by destroying the book that gives him his power.
Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm'd
The noontide sun, call'd forth the mutinous winds,
And 'twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove's stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck'd up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book.
So although John Dee’s sprawling career took him all over the Europe, and involved spying, the birth of an Empire, and trips into the world of angels, he was never that far away from that place he so enjoyed being in as a student - the theatre. And when you pass his understated portrait in the galleries, you might notice a red curtain drawn up behind him, as if he is an actor stepping out for his curtain call. The real man behind the character of Prospero.
If you want to take a look at John Dee’s portrait, you’ll find a link in the podcast notes. We hope the Ashmolean will be open again before too long, and when it is, you can find in person in gallery 2. Join us next week for another poetry adventure, this time with Michelangelo and monsters.